Why become a ministerial staffer

By Victoria Draudins

July 16, 2018

Public servants come back from working in a minister’s office with a variety of new skills, says Victoria Draudins. It’s not all about politics.

Working in a minister’s office can be a great boon for a public servant’s career. They depart with the department’s blessings and their profile is instantly raised upon returning, often being sought out by colleagues keen to hear about a minister’s likely views on issues and how best to engage with them.

However, as well as the professional development that comes from pushing yourself in these roles, it’s also worth keeping in mind some of the pitfalls involved in these highly pressurised and reactive environments.

Good politics

One of the most obvious benefits involves enjoying such close proximity to those making decisions affecting how our society is shaped as well as being able to form some influence yourself. As one staffer recounts, “the last person to speak to a minister before they make a key decision is usually a member of their staff. That’s a privileged position to be in.”

Public servants come back from working in a minister’s office with a variety of new skills. By being at the coalface they can better discern which issues will interest the minister and provide a more strategic, holistic view than they would otherwise get through their department. Given the flatter structure, public servants also get the opportunity to take on more responsibilities and liaise with more senior stakeholders at an earlier stage in their career.

As a result, they should come back to their old role being able to write more concise, insightful briefs, identifying which issues a minister will care about and give a lot of attention to, and which issues will get a mere glance. This can flow into further opportunities, to capitalise on newfound confidence in their work and to demonstrate leadership skills by mentoring more junior staff in how much time to give to a task.

The fast-paced political environment also allows a person to develop a greater ability to roll with the day’s hurly-burly, providing a greater appreciation of the constraints an office is working under and to better understand how decisions are made. So as one public servant stated, instead of worrying as much now that advice wasn’t taken up because a brief didn’t zero in on the pertinent issues well enough or that more consultation was needed, they found that the minister may actually have agreed with the issue but had tied hands when more powerful ministers were pushing for an opposing view.

Policy professionalism

While there are a number of different categories of people working at a minister’s office, policy advisers are one of the more prevalent groups and this is where someone with a public sector background really proves their worth.

As one recent APS staff member recounted, they could instantly tell the difference between policy and political appointees. Political staffers jump to considering how an issue will play out on the day’s news. Policy people, meanwhile, with a keen understanding of process, seek to evaluate the merits of a policy on its own merits. This actually exemplifies the relationship between a minister and their department perfectly – one trying to sell their party’s agenda to today’s public, while the other is focused on providing dispassionate, sound advice with an eye not only to the present, but also in the longer term. Both areas need the other to be able to fulfill their own functions.

Another thing which is normally talked about in negative terms, could become valuable to a public servant – getting around silos. While ministers are in the same party they still have their own interests to progress. This results in, as one former staffer recounts, to ‘an excessive amount of ‘silo-ism’ making it extremely difficult to get information from other ministers. However, a wily or seasoned public servant should have skills in navigating silos. This also occurs in more junior positions, where they’ve had ample time to practise asking for things nicely when they lack the authority to simply demand it.

Policy vs politics

One common conception people have is that they’ll become too linked to politics and will no longer be seen as providing impartial advice once they resume their career in a department. And it would be naive to think that no public servant working in a minister’s office had political interests or aspirations.

“One APS staff recounted how they were asked to put a political spin on something until a more senior staffer quickly retracted the request.”

But in saying that, it is pretty rare to come across a public servant turned politician; in most cases these delineation remain fixed from the start of a person’s career. Although a good inverse example of this is demonstrated by Scott Morrison’s former Chief of Staff Philip Gaetjens, who has been recently announced to replace John Fraser as Treasury Secretary.

But while lines will sometimes become blurry, as with anything involving good ethics, thinking through what might become a conflict in future and planning on how to respond to them can be extremely beneficial. Forward planning is especially important as standards tend to slip most during time-pressurised moments where there is less time to think issues through. And given the highly reactionary nature of politics, this is bound to happen sooner rather than later, as ministers pivot from issue to issue in a day.

A good culture is also instrumental. For example, one APS staff recounted how they were asked to put a political spin on something until a more senior staffer quickly retracted the request.

With any organisation, culture is determined from the top down. As another APS staff member has noted, “if the minister does not care for the wider government agenda and collaborating to produce good outcomes, then neither would their advisers. If advisers tended to lose their temper easily and were disorganised, it was often because their minister was like that.”

Personal and professional development

But even if their career may be damaged in some departments or if a change of government happens, the benefits of seeing how ministers and their staff receive a department’s information is well worth its weight.

While it would have been useful to compare statistics on how the public servants undertaking these types of apprenticeships fare relative to their peers – I’m guessing these roles give them a noticeable boost and would expect to see them outperforming their colleagues. However, there has been there is a paucity of information on the subject.

And working in an office does not come without its drawbacks. A review back in 2009 criticised the MoPS for lacking in professional development and management initiatives, citing a lack of induction programs and stating:

“Given staff numbers, and the many competing demands on ministers, appropriate management is often lacking—a great deal is left to depend on staff agreements that are said to require staff ‘to act with skill, discretion and integrity’.”

A scan of the most recently available Members of Parliament (Staff) Annual Reports to 2013 showed that learning and development courses and information sessions seemed to remained relatively unchanged since the review.

This is probably a symptom of the unpredictable and reactive nature of the work environment and the relatively small enterprises involved, where flatter structures can mean less formal processes are put in place.

However, for those adept at swimming (rather than sinking) in ambiguous or reactive environments, the new skillsets and higher profile seems well worth the challenge, should you get the opportunity.

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